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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Hearing, Mother Father Deaf: Hearing People in Deaf Families

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To prove my point, I decided to further my interpreting skills by enrolling in a master’s program in BSL/English interpreting at Durham University. While taking this course, I discovered linguistics, interpretation analysis, and research. From then on, there was no turning back. I became involved in training interpreters, then moved to Australia and completed a Ph.D. in linguistics, analyzing the translation styles and interpreting omissions produced by Auslan/English interpreters in university lectures (Napier, 2001, 2002b). I am now an academic in a linguistics department, coordinating translation and interpreting programs in different languages (including Auslan), conducting research on translation and interpreting, and practicing as a sign language interpreter as often as I can.

My status as a bilingual and an interpreter has shifted and changed. I have acquired several languages in addition to the two that I grew up with, and my role as an interpreter has changed significantly: from something I did informally on an ad hoc basis for my parents, to something more formal that I fell into by accident, to a professional role that I chose, to a position where I am teaching other interpreters. Being a polyglot interpreter (Fabbro & Daro, 1995) is a strong part of my linguistic identity. My cultural identity, however, is more closely attached to community membership and notions of deafness.


A deaf community is well established as a linguistic and cultural group, and its members identify with one another based on their common use of a national and natural signed language, their cultural identity, and their social norms and values (Brennan, 1992; Ladd, 2003; Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996). Hearing people with deaf parents are often described as bilingual and bicultural (Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996; Singleton & Tittle, 2000), in that they have grown up with two languages and two cultures—the dominant hearing culture and the minority community Deaf culture. I will return to the notion of biculturalism later in this chapter.

Many readers will be familiar with debates concerning notions of deafness and cultural identity and the introduction of the D/deaf convention to identify the extent of a person’s deafness (Woodward, 1972). It has been argued that a deaf person, who uses a signed language as his or her first or preferred language, identifies as being a member of the deaf community and a proponent of deaf culture, and is to be referred to as “Deaf” (Senghas & Monaghan, 2002). Alternatively, people with a hearing loss who do not use sign language (or do not use it well), and do not associate with the deaf community, are referred to as deaf.

I remember a deaf BSL teacher arguing that I would be more suitable to teach BSL than some deaf people, because I was a native signer and more “culturally deaf” than deaf people who had learned BSL later in life. A controversial point. But an interesting one, given that I have grown up in the deaf community and now work and socialize in the deaf community. The late Ben Steiner, a British interpreter who had deaf parents, would have agreed with this viewpoint.5 Before he passed away, Steiner began using a sign to represent the notion of being “Deaf at heart”—a sign combining the BSL signs for deaf and heart in one movement. He argued that although he was not audiologically deaf, he regarded himself linguistically and culturally as a Deaf person. Since that time, some people would argue that the sign has been over-exploited by hearing people (and particularly interpreters) who would like to consider themselves as being culturally Deaf, but did not grow up in the community. Johnston and Schembri (2007) have also noted that the sign for deaf is sometimes used to refer to hearing people who are considered members of the deaf community and think and behave the deaf way. So who gets to decide who can be referred to as Deaf? Who gets to decide who is Deaf enough? The key issue to consider is in relation to defining community membership.

Community Membership

When we moved to Australia, my husband and I knew nobody. An Australian deaf person, whom we had met at a conference in the United Kingdom, met us at the airport and proceeded to introduce us to members of the deaf and interpreting communities. In some ways, the transition was difficult, as nobody knew who we were. People would ask if I had deaf parents; when I confirmed that I did, they would automatically ask, “Which school did they go to?” Then I would explain that I was British, so my parents went to school in England. Nobody knew my family, so I could not make connections with people based on mutual and historical friendships. I did not have any shared experiences with the Australian deaf community. I did not understand the nuanced communication which was embedded in Australian deaf history and culture. Yet growing up in the British deaf community actually made it easier, because of the perceptions of community ties. Even though people did not know me or my family, as soon as I mentioned that I had deaf family members, I was accepted. There was an implicit understanding that I was a member of the community. Mindess (1999) would say that this occurs due to the understanding that some hearing people have empathy with the deaf experience, ally themselves to the deaf community, and engage in reciprocal relationships with deaf people (e.g., interpreting in exchange for being taught the language).

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